The sunset is purple and gold in Madagascar’s dampest and most biodiverse Makira-Masoala rainforest, and the flying foxes soar high over our nets, headed westward to feed for the night on the fruit trees that line the distant coast.
There is something about oceans—perhaps unsurprisingly—that speak to the ends of the Earth, and something about the Indian Ocean that speaks to this wonder so particularly well. I marvel that, some 2,500 years ago (we think!), Polynesians crossed this vast expanse of water in outrigger canoes and became the first humans to set foot on Madagascar. For 88 million years of prehistory, the Eighth Continent floated alone in this Indian Ocean expanse—an isolated evolutionary laboratory free from human influence—but today, one would be challenged to find an aspect of the Malagasy environment not marked by human presence.
At dusk under the bat net, I reread my personal Bible, John Steinbeck’s “Log from the Sea of Cortez.” “On a day like this,” he writes, “the mind goes outward and touches in all directions.”
A Year of Work Complete
For almost the entirety of the past year, I have been hiking, driving, and boating my way around Madagascar, collecting field data for my PhD research investigating risks for zoonosis, or animal-to-human transmission, of fruit bat-borne viruses on the Eighth Continent. It is the sentimental last week of my year-long field season, and I will return soon to Princeton University to continue laboratory and data analyses in an attempt to make sense of the treasure trove of data I have amassed over the past 13 months.
It’s a strange time to be on Madagascar’s northeastern peninsula, for Maroansetra, the gateway town to this rainforest paradise, is uniquely isolated from the rest of the world. Fierce winter seas mean that the boats from the neighboring coastal metropolis of Tamatave have been cancelled, and a protracted strike at AirMadagascar in these economically-troubled times mean that no planes have serviced the humble airport in the past 31 days. As a result, vazaha (Malagasy for “white foreigners”) are few and far between, for not many are keen to brave the five day overland journey of beaches, broken bridges, and baka (“ferry”) along one of the most notorious “roads” in all of Madagascar.
Integrated Conservation and Development
But I’ve come all this way for more than startling photographs and adventurous tales. It is important to me that my research team re-sample this rain forest peninsula before my impending return to America—for Makira-Masoala is a special place. In no other place where I work is the oneness of human and environment so blatantly obvious to me, the drivers of pathogen spillover through human consumption of forest animals so stark. Indeed, the bat roost that we net in a town called Andaparaty is part of Makira Natural Park, one of a handful of successful Integrated Conservation and Development Plans (ICDPs)—projects by which the environment is managed by local people rather than the government-directed national park service.
In Makira, people are reliant on the forest—including the fruit bats—for subsistence, but they work hard to replace firewood with tree nurseries, restock fish with aquaculture ponds, and support researchers attempting to understand the population trends in the animal communities upon which they depend for survival. Our local guide, India, chides me gently that he has been waiting for our return for a month—liquid nitrogen delays in Tana and challenges in the overland voyage mean that we are late in our return date to Andaparaty, as was planned last November. And India has been counting on that money. It’s shocking to realize that, for many, work comes to this region twice a year only—when some crazy American girl wants to collect blood from fruit bats.
An Age-Old Debate
The environmental movement as we know it today is often said to have emerged in the US in the early 1900s, when California wilderness idealist John Muir engaged then-Secretary of the Interior, Gifford Pinchot, in the debate over preservation vs. conservation: whether the environment should be protected in pristine national park form (Muir’s opinion) or in human-used dominated national forest form (Pinchot’s opinion). In Makira—indeed, in all of Madagascar—conservation dominates for there is hardly a realistic alternative.
As in many parts of the world, Madagascar’s fairly recent prehistory was rife with megafauna—gorilla-sized lemurs, towering elephant birds, and at least two species of endemic hippopotamus—which went extinct shortly after human arrival to the island. Classically, Madagascar biologists have touted a tale of gross deforestation and widespread human exploitation of the Malagasy environment, though more recent work suggests that much of the Malagasy highlands may, in fact, be a native savanna ecosystem (not former rain forest) and that non-anthropogenic climatic changes likely played a significant role in megafuna extinction. Nonetheless, most extant (or still living) Malagasy flora and fauna feel the menace of human population growth and resource use today.
I gaze across the breathtaking eastern coastline, half-expecting an elephant bird to stalk out of the primordial trees. “Tsara indrindra ny paysage,” I whisper. The landscape is very beautiful, but “paysage” is a French word and feels out-of-place on my tongue. “What’s the Malagasy word for landscape?” I wonder aloud to my coworker, University of Antananarivo PhD student, Christian Ranaivoson.
Christian frowns. “There isn’t one really—we usually use tanana.”
And I laugh aloud to think, how fitting. Tanana (here prounounced “tah-NAH-na”) means town. Even in vocabulary, humans are integrated into the Madagascar environment.
Finding a Life Path
My friends, family, and classmates sometimes ask me why I do the things I do—why do I spend so much time in the remote corners of the world, tracking lethal viruses in enormous bats? There are, after all, other paths I might have taken. Indeed, as a young girl I thought I might become a US national park ranger, or maybe a veterinarian, or, in my more ambitious moments, perhaps a wolf biologist—I love our North American mountains, alpine landscapes, and wild creatures. But, in truth, the mountains of today are but an echo of the landscape that predated North America’s own megafaunal extinctions of mammoth and dire wolf and saber-tooth cat at the close of the Pleistocene. We think we have “preserved” our wilderness in our national park system—America’s best idea, it is called—but really, we’ve simply been using the wilderness up for so long that we have forgotten what it was like to begin with.
In Madagascar, we are more recent factors in a wild ecosystem, and the transformation is still apparent and ongoing. In Madagascar, we may yet find a way to intercept this transformation and establish some sort of peaceful coexistence with our surroundings. And because of this, in Madagascar, I feel strongest that feeling so often called religious, which Steinbeck says “is really the understanding and attempt to say that man is related to the whole thing …”
And it is for this reason that I work in Madagascar. “The true biologist deals with life,” says my favorite author, “with teeming boisterous life, and learns something from it, learns that the first rule of life is living.” After thirteen months in Madagascar, I will dare to call myself a biologist—one who has learned truly what it means to live.